Over the past four decades, King has provided accompaniment for the likes of Ray Charles, Tony Bennett and Big Joe Turner, and matched his six-string skills on stage with Jerry Garcia, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Johnson. King really, though, has earned his reputation as a jazz guitarist. Since the early 1970s he has spent a considerable amount of time working with legends like Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Herb Ellis, Lenny Breau, Willie Nelson and Jimmy Witherspoon.
King brought his guitar prowess to the East Coast for a rare series of performances and seminars earlier this month. On a Monday night at Iridium he sat in on Les Paul's gig and blew the crowd away. Paul always features special guests in his affable, low key residence at Iridium and King was introduced after several dazzling performances by youngsters.
"I wouldn't want to follow that," Paul quipped just before he introduced King as "Willie Nelson's guitarist." King came out with a beautifully customized Heritage hollow body guitar that dwarfed the model Paul was playing.
"You're not playing a Les Paul so it must be difficult," Paul deadpanned.
"But I have one," King said with a smile.
King launched into an absolutely beautiful solo on "Blue Moon of Kentucky" with long, elegant lines that made everything else played during the evening sound like hackwork. As he finished his chorus and tried to pass it on Paul put up his hands in surrender and indicated King should keep playing. King played another series of choruses with a completely different feel, a breathtaking passage that moved in sonic space like a prima ballerina.
When King finished, Paul told the crowd "Chet Atkins and I made an album together. That was one of the songs we played. Here's another."
Paul and King launched into "Back Home Again in Indiana," letting King take it shortly after the head.
Upstairs during a cigarette break, King was impressed by the relaxed nature of the gig.
"We didn't rehearse," he said. "Les didn't even ask me what I wanted to play before I got up there."
Playing professionally from the age of 12, King made a name for himself in the clubs and honky-tonks of his native San Antonio before heading West in 1968 to the San Francisco Bay area with longtime pal and Texas rock legend Doug Sahm.
"There are a lot of great musicians in San Antonio," he said, "but it seems like you have to get out of town before anyone notices you. I guess it's too laid back there."
Out in San Francisco King formed Shades of Joy, a fusion jazz-rock ensemble that recorded for Mercury Records, where King became a leading session guitarist.
In addition to touring with Baker, Stitt and Witherspoon, among others, King taught at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles. Returning to San Antonio in 1978, King ran the Southwest Guitar Conservatory, where he taught jazz technique utilizing the talents of some of the finest guitarists around, including Ellis. He also gigged as part of an illustrious guitar trio with Ellis and Breau and released an instructional video as part of Arlen Roth's "Hot Licks" series.
Since 1990, King has split his time between Texas and San Francisco, performing regularly with his jazz quintet and with the Tejano jazz band The West Side Horns. The multi-talented King has moonlighted as a jazz disc jockey, online journalist -- his column appears regularly on AllAboutJazz.com -- clinician and heads the Indigo Moon label with his wife and producer Teri Harllee.
In addition to his solo recordings, "Skylight" (Mercury) and "Moon Magic" (Indigo Moon/Freefalls), he recorded "Angel Eyes" (Columbia) in collaboration with old friend Nelson in the mid-'80s, touring Japan and lending his talents and band to The Willie Nelson Special featuring Ray Charles.
For the past three years, King performed and toured steadily with Nelson. On "The Gypsy" (Indigo Moon/Freefalls), King's latest album, his jazz mastery comes to the fore. The CD features Nelson's inimitable vocals and guitar licks on half of the disc's 10 tracks. Described by King as "a love letter to the deep-rooted connection between jazz and country music," the album features King backed by his regular quintet on a set of standards.
Recently Nelson added lyrics to a set of King's haunting changes, which became the title cut to his latest CD, "The Great Divide."
King recently has penned an instruction book, "Getting Into Jazz Guitar," (published by Mel Bay Co.), one of a series he is writing for the imprint.
He also is putting the finishing touches on a new CD, "Star Dreams," which features jazz piano legend Marian McPartland and her trio on four tracks.
"Marian McPartland has been a major force in jazz for over 50 years," King said. "The character and integrity of her musical genius places her among the jazz greats."